Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Our Swiftly-Shifting Views of Worship:

I’m never more acutely reminded of the changing mindset of the Church than when I listen to hymns. It saddens me indescribably to see them being sung less and less often, and replaced by modern pseudo-worship music. Now, although I do personally prefer the sound of older hymns to modern worship, the musical style isn’t solely what I’m looking at when I make this critique. The negative impact this switch in music is having on the church is a message (both lyrical and subliminal) that seems to have been lost when we made the transition.

In the third verse of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”, the last two lines read,

“We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.”

This line specifically lists doctrine as an element that binds Christians together. We are “One” in doctrine. But . . . are we? I cannot look at the church in America today and honestly say that we, as a body of believers, value the conservation of doctrinal purity. We’re grasping hungrily at whatever sounds right to us, instead of being so intimately familiar with the Word of God that, at the faintest hint of false doctrine, we immediately recognize it as such and reject it. Let us not be so eager to call everyone who claims “Jesus is my Homeboy” a Christian! By doing this, we are not being “seeker-friendly” by making the way to the Kingdom look more attractive, but instead making it much more difficult for anyone to see the true path. Does our worship music reflect our firm stance on pure doctrine, or does it skirt the details? Does it talk about nothing else but the fact that “God is love”, so as to avoid boring people, or turning them off?
When we read the lyrics of this specific hymn, it’s obvious (to anyone with an IQ that doesn’t make Forrest Gump’s look high) that it describes the leading of a Christian life as a battle, and the Earth as a war-zone. We’re “soldiers”, as the title tells us. I charge you to find one popular modern worship song that sings of the battle that is our faith . . . and sings about it with joy and thankfulness! For that matter, find one that sings of the importance of sound doctrine. Not only the importance of it, but the unity it offers! “One in hope and doctrine…” Doesn’t culturally-popular Christianity like to tell us that the way to create unity among believers is to not discuss controversial topics? Not disagree with others over “little details”? I love how John McArthur put it when he said this:

“Hymnology is tied to theology and where you have depth you have height. Where you have a shallow theology you have a shallow hymn knowledge. Where you have a superficial understanding of divine truth, you have superficial expression of it. But where you have a people who have come to grips of divine truth and who have grandiose and glorious thoughts about God produced by an understanding of the profound realities of divine truth, they're not content with a shallow expression. We love the old hymns because they are profound. They have a certain poetic genius that reaches into the depths of our theology and gives it expression. We don't need to be seduced by a sort of a saloon melody. It's enough for us to sing great words; we don't need a mantra to induce an emotion. Our thoughts of truth and our thoughts of God catapult us into lofty hymns.”

In all honesty, trashing modern worship music is not a personal vendetta of mine. I truly wish to see God’s Truth relayed in the music that we raise up as humble offerings to Him. Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the word “modern”. After all, every style of music was “modern” at some point, right? Here’s the thing; the vast majority of modern worship music is set to, as McArthur put it, a “saloon melody”. The vast majority are so scant of verses and substance that they end up resembling chants rather than songs of praise. For instance, we sang a song in church last Sunday entitled “His Grace Covers Me”, and it went like this . . .

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
Amazing love, Now flowing down
From hands and feet That were nailed to the tree
As grace flows down and covers me


It covers me
It covers me
It covers me


And covers me
And covers me
And covers me
His grace flows down and covers me

Combine these virtually substance-less lyrics with dipping, swelling, reverberating music, and you have a recipe for an utterly self-focused “worship” session.
To help put things in perspective, let’s use the general outline for a song of adoration about someone else. Say . . . any old generic love song. Even many of these dime-a-dozen floozy-tunes have the right idea, to a certain extent. The lyrics of said songs do not repeat lines about a lover’s forgiveness/ kindness over . . . and over . . . and over. They do not, in general, speak solely of how very much the subject of the song loves the singer, but rather how much the singer loves the subject of the song. These love songs are completely focused on the person that the song was written about; how beautiful her smile is, how gently he speaks, or (…ehem…) how big her booty is. Yes, they aren’t the best that a song can be (by a long shot), but at least their content is focused on the person being worshipped, and not the person doing the worshipping.
Have we forgotten that worshipping the Lord isn’t for our benefit? Although it ultimately is beneficial to us, when this becomes our primary focus we miss the point entirely. No matter what postmodernists try to tell us, worship is not about us “experiencing God”. We worship to glorify the Lord . . . to speak words of adoration about our Savior. He deserves no less; indeed, He deserves infinitely more! Why is it, then, that we don’t see a worship session as successful unless it evokes the correct emotional response from the worshippers? Incredibly dramatic musical arrangements, created to evoke said deeply-felt emotional responses, are (at best) unnecessary and (at worst) a egotism-inducing. When we’re caught up in emotions and feelings, our mindset tends to automatically become more self-focused. Saint Augustine seems to hold this view himself, as evidenced in book X of The Confessions, when he writes,

"At times it seems to me that I am paying {the songs of worship} more honor than is their due, because I am aware that our minds are more deeply moved to devotion by those holy words when they are sung, and more ardently inflamed to piety, than would be the case without singing. I realize that all the varied emotions of the human spirit respond in ways proper to themselves to a singing voice and a song, which arouse them by appealing to some secret affinity. Yet sensuous gratification, to which I must not yield my mind, for fear it grow languid, often deceives me: not content to follow meekly in the wake of reason, in whose company it has gained entrance, sensuous enjoyment often essays to run ahead and take the lead. And so in this respect I sin, and only realize it later." (In this passage, Augustine was writing about his thoughts/opnions on music as a means of worship)

None of this is to say that having an emotional response to worship music is a negative thing—far from it, in fact. The negative aspect comes from misaligned priorities of the worshipper. When our main goal is to use our voices to show adoration for our Savior, whether or not we feel particularly adoring and euphoric at the moment, then we will truly be worshipping. We will realize that this is how God intended our songs of praise to be sung . . . because our hearts are most joyful in the midst of glorious humility.

I Chronicles 16:8-9~
Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people. Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of his wondrous works.

1 Chronicles 16:23-25~
Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation. Declare his glory among the heathen; his marvelous works among all nations. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he also is to be feared above all gods.

Psalm 66:1-2~
Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands: Sing forth the honor of his name: make his praise glorious.

I Corinthians 14:14-15~
For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.
What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Sufficient for the Day

Matthew 6:34~ “"Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Up until this Christmas, I had never heard this verse in either the ESV or the KJV, which both use the word “sufficient”. Hearing this version of the verse gives it quite an amplified meaning from the NIV, which simply says, “each day has enough troubles of its own.”
First, let’s look at the word “sufficient”. The dictionary defines it as, “enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end”. In other words, no more is required. So, instead of this verse simply telling us to not “overload” on worry and anxiety, it’s actually telling us that God, in His infinite knowledge, has carefully measured out the amount of tribulations each of our days have, and, therefore, the amount of dwelling we should be doing on worrisome situations.
This, then, has rather far-reaching implications for worrying about the future. It would seem that, if this interpretation of the verse is correct, that when we worry about the future, we are throwing off the balance of trials that God has planned.
If the economic recession hasn’t yet hurt you financially, why are you dwelling on it right now? If you still have 3 more years of college left, why are you worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to find a job in your field after you graduate? If your test results haven’t come back yet, why are you fighting anxiety as you consider chemotherapy?
Certainly there will come a time when you are low on funds, out of work, or ill. But perhaps the time to think on these things is while they’re actually happening, and not a moment before. Perhaps anxiety in someone’s heart not only “weighs him down” (Proverbs 12:25), but, even worse, hinders the effectiveness of his handling of problems that need dealt with now.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Power of God

Alot of times we spend so much time meditating on the love and tenderness of Jesus, that we forget about the sheer, glorious power of God. The magnitude of His being is so vastly beyond our comprehension, and it is essential, for humility's sake, that we reflect on the mighty words of God. This passage in from Job 38, verses 1-21.

"Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'?

Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?
The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.
The wicked are denied their light, and their upraised arm is broken.

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.

What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside?
Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!

The things that strike me most about this passage is both it's incredible and majestic self-description by God, and His magnificent use of sarcasm. In this last line, He's basically telling Job, "You idiot...I'm the creator of reality itself. I existed before time, because I created time! No measly amount of experience you can boast in will even come close to being able to compare with Me!" It's a beautiful mental picture...just close your eyes, and imagine God speaking this to you. You'd have no room left to feel offense at His criticisms, because you'd be too full of wonder and awe at His mere voice. You'd never question His judgement of you, because you'd know from the moment He spoke that, not only would you pale in comparision to Him, but your inferior state make it impossible to compare yourself at Him at all!

In Isaiah 40:12 and 15, we see another striking description of the Lord...

"Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?" (v. 12)
"Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust." (v. 15)

However...the most beautiful thing is the seeming-contrast that we see in the verse directly before...

"He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." (v. 11)

How is is that God--is who is so obviously powerful, wise, sovereign, and superior beyond our wildest dreams--could be "gentle"? Why would He bother to tend to us like sheep, when His vastness must make us beyond miniscule in His sight? Perhaps this is exactly why He cares for us so tenderly...because...

2 Corinthians 12:9-10~ "But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.
That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Desires of Our Hearts

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” ~Psalm 37:4

First off, let me give the credit for this idea to a friend of mine, whom I recently had a brief conversation with about the topic. Too often the constraints of the English language keep us from getting the full effect of this verse. In fact, I would venture to say that, oftentimes, we get it completely wrong. As my friend pointed out to me, in English we have one word for both the desires themselves, and the object being desired. Annoying, when you consider the fact that Taiwan has 20-some words for “rice”. You’d think that the British could have been a wee bit more creative. Could it be that we’ve misinterpreted this verse? Is it possible that…perhaps…"delighting ourselves in the Lord" isn’t a free-pass to a Celestial-Santa Claus? Maybe (prepare yourself), this verse actually means that, instead of giving us what we desire, God will actually plant new desires on our hearts. Good, Godly desires. Desires that will further His kingdom, enhance our lives, and, ultimately, bring glory to Him.

However, before we can achieve this, the question is to ask ourselves is…are we really willing to give up our worldly desires? In the book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes, “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell." How willing are we to completely empty ourselves of all of our earthly desires? For gaining Heavenly ones isn’t simply a matter of “making room”. Holiness cannot dwell alongside worldliness. Galatians 2:19-10 says,

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

It seems to me that we must first start out by putting to death our human nature. By completely surrendering everything that we consider “ours”, we allow ourselves to prepare a dwelling place for the vastness of God’s righteousness. As Jim Elliot so aptly said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” So…what exactly does dying to self entail? Is it wrong to have desires for things other than God? Is it wrong to derive pleasure from earthly things? My opinion is that, no, it most certainly is not. I believe that what we should strive for is actually relinquishing our hold on things of the world. Bringing yourself into the mindset that nothing we “own”, as far as earthly things go, is truly ours in the first place. All things belong to God, and God alone has the power to both give them, and take them away. Job finally came to this very conclusion, after several chapters of wrestling with God, and said,

“Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)

If we can simultaneously enjoy the rich blessings that God has poured out on our lives, and realize that He has both the power and justification to take them out of our lives whenever He deems it necessary…can we do anything but feel in awe of such a Being? Can we do anything less than be utterly delighted with a God from whom all good things come from, and to whom all good things will return? Lewis wrapped up this concept nicely when he wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you get neither.”

Delight ourselves in the Lord. It is a constant struggle for me, and it is something that we must always be on our guards about, lest we fall into the trap of worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. But the Lord God is faithful in keeping His promises. He will give us the strength if we only ask Him.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Platonic Allegory Revisited

Actually, this title is somewhat misleading. It should say something like, "A Platonic allegory rewritten, Megan-style...with an entirely different ending tacked on." However, I thought that the lengthiness of such a title would severely damage the post's aesthetic appeal, and therefore, drawn even less readers than it currently has. This story is based off an allegory that can be found in the book Republic, by Plato, at the beginning of chapter 7.

Once upon a time there was a small cave, completely surrounded by a beautiful, tropical paradise, and in it dwelled three people. There was something interesting about the way in which these people lived inside this cave…namely, they were all strapped to chairs, unable to move their limbs, or even turn their heads. They each sat facing a cave wall, and behind them roared a great fire. The only images these people could see were shadows reflected onto the cave wall by the light of the fire. They did, however, still have voices to communicate with…and they did just that. Although none really knew what the others looked like, save for the blurry cast of their shadow, they thought they must know all things very well…for they could not well imagine anything besides the small existence they had known. These three cave-dwellers had very different personalities. The first one, Ann, was very set in her ways. Actually, it went beyond that…change was her biggest enemy, and her greatest fear. She earnestly enjoyed being strapped to the chair…because she never wanted to see beyond what she knew. The second one, John, made famous the motto “ignorance is bliss”. Change was a subject of apathy for him. He could live with it, or without it. Truth was irrelevant…all that mattered was what he could see, and he had no desire to venture beyond it.The third cave inhabitant—Sarah—was unlike both Ann and John. She longed to break free of the binding chains. She desired nothing more than to see for herself the world which she knew existed, yet beyond that, of which she knew nothing. One day, a vision came to all three of them, and they were told that if they struggled hard enough, they could indeed break free of their chains. Each one’s reaction was different. When Ann heard they news, her fingers curled tightly around the arm of the chair, gripping it fiercely. Her movements (what little she was able) stilled further, so as not to upset her position. She whispered a prayer that she would never, ever be wrenched from her precious chair and chains. As the news sunk in for John, not much changed. He decided that anything that he might “discover” outside of his cave wouldn’t really be worth the effort it took to get there. All that struggling, grappling, and straining was bound to work up a sweat, and John simply didn’t have the energy. Maybe one day he would try…but it was doubtful. As Sarah absorbed the vision, she was emerged in a sea of hope. Feeling giddy with anticipation, and ferocious with determination, she immediately began struggling against her ties. All day she pushed and pulled and strained against the wretched chains that had been a part of her forever. Her body cried out in pain as she pressed on, never letting up in her fight. She had a singular goal, and nothing was more important.Eventually, her hard work paid off. All the effort, pain, and times of doubt were rewarded when she finally heard the clink of breaking metal. As Sarah’s chains fell free, she began to shake. What to do now? The struggle was over…she could walk into the light. But what if it wasn’t light, at all? What if dreadful evils lie outside of the cave…outside of her line of vision? The thoughts surfaced in rapid succession. Why had she not thought of these things before? She knew the answer…she had been too focused on ridding herself of what kept her bound in falsehood to ponder whether or not falsehood was that bad of a devil at all…and, if it was, whether or not it was worth entering into something so completely unknown in order to rid herself of it. With a deep breath of fortitude, laced with the shakiness of uncertainty, she decided then and there to not let her agonizing effort go to waste. Quaking to her bones, she slowly turned her head and rose from the chair. It was then that she entered into pure Truth...pure joy.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spiritual Gifts

Lately I’ve been thinking on the topic of spiritual gifts. The Bible has many verses on spiritual gifts, and clearly states that each of us has at least one.

“Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” (Romans 12:4-8)

It seems like the Church, both as a body and as individuals, neglects to emphasize the significance of the fact that not only do we have a spiritual gift, but we each have our own gift, and a different way that gift manifests itself in us.

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

If the Holy Spirit endows each of us with a unique gift, then that must mean we have this specific gift for a purpose. And if we have this gift for a purpose, and neglect to put it to use for the kingdom of God, then that must mean we are wasting it. And who are we to take for granted a holy and undeserved gift from the Lord? I feel like many of us (myself included) are more afraid of volunteer sign-up sheets than of the Devil himself. And where as it isn’t appropriate to say that everybody should be raising their hand to serve in the nursery, or visit shut-ins, isn’t it right that we should seek out ways to bless others with these powers of God working through us?

I took a spiritual gift test today. It was exhaustive and detailed, and told me that my spiritual gifts were faith and discernment. This is interesting to me, because I know that means that God has a specific reason for giving me these certain gifts. He wants me to use them in the church, for the Kingdom…somehow. This doesn’t seem as clear to me as a gift such as healing or teaching would be (although, coincidentally, teaching was a very close 3rd place on my results). What do you do with a gift like Faith? And Discernment? Do you sit there, trust in God, and glare righteously at evildoers? I don’t think so, but neither can I see a certain direction with these things, as far as serving in the church goes. I want to serve, and I pray that God will present me with an opportunity to use His powers that He’s letting me borrow to in turn bring glory to Him. However, regrettably, as excited about service as I sound (look?) right now, I, also, have been known to be one of those dive-under-the-pew/hide-behind-the-bulletin people when the pastor looks my way while talking about volunteering. What is the cause of this reluctance? Is it laziness, or a fear or failure/incompetence? Or, perhaps it’s more along the lines of selfishness? I believe that it’s all three of these things, but I also think that they all really stem from selfishness. Selfishness is not exactly how the world tends to define it. When we are selfish, not only do we tend to think on ourselves more often than we should, but we also have a warped view of reality. Selfishness is extremely easy to be caught up in, because it means that we view the world through how it relates to us, and us alone. Since I am, and can be, only one being, it’s not difficult to see how our perspective could eventually become the only one we are aware of. When we look at church, service, and spiritual gifts through the screen of “Me” (as in, our own selves), the big picture gets lost, and what we see is a tunnel-vision version of the benefits our services reap. Serving others and exercising our spiritual gifts seems more like drudgery or penance and less like fulfilling our life purpose. When we see it as something we must do in order to be a “good person”, and not as the intended purpose God made us for, we see the effects of a self-centered mindset. Being able to see the big picture as it pertains to God and His kingdom is unnatural for us humans. But in order to gain understanding in the value of our spiritual gifts, it is also essential.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Reason We Are Meek

"He who knows himself well is mean and abject in his own sight, and takes no delight in the vain praise of men." --Thomas a'Kempis

"'You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,' said Aslan. 'And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.'" --C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

The concept of being meek and lowly has long confused me. Obtaining true humility seemed rather impossible, and, honestly, rather unappealing. Why must be rid ourselves of all pride? I mean...we do good things, right? And surely we have skills, and talents, and nice features. What makes Pride the worst of all sins, as some have labled it? In moderation...what makes it a sin at all?
These are questions for which I didn't really have any answers for until last night. Oh, I knew that we, compared to the Lord, are unimaginably, unfathomable lowly. I knew that that fact alone should be enough to bring us to our knees. But...once in awhile...I didn't really see what was wrong in enjoying that wee bit of swelling in the chest when people begin to think highly of you. After all, you did deserve it...right?

"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." --Galatians 2:20

As a Christian, I believe strongly that the ONLY source of ultimate Truth comes from God. Why do I believe this? Because Jesus told us in His word that He is the "Way, the Truth, and the Life". If there was a way to obtain goodness, even in small amounts, outide of The Lord, then obviously He wound't be the only way, truth, and life. Sure, He may be one way to truth and life...but not the only way, for we could simply cultivate the slight amounts of goodness inside of us to obtain righteousness. This is critical in how we view the sin of pride. If, then, God is the only source of goodness and Truth, as the Bible teaches He is, how is it orthodox to believe that we humans could have even a speck of goodness of truth in us? Simply put, it isn't.
Here's an analogy for you...
Imagine a room....a bare, empty, room. The only thing in this room is a candle, which is lit, casting light throughout the room. Without the candle, the room is pitch black. Now imagine of of the walls boasting about its light, and imagine the other 3 walls praising the this wall for its glorious shine. Would this seem ridiculous? Certainly it knows that it only glows because the candle, the source of the light, is reflecting off of it. Without the candle, the wall would be devoid of any light, whatsoever...just like the rest of the room.
When we fail to recognize our complete incapacity to be a source of any goodness at all, we are essentially saying that He is not the only way. He is not the only Truth. He is not the only Life.